26 August 2020

Skills: What's Important Right Now

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • This article introduces our research project on skills, outlining which questions we think are valid and will be answered
  • Readers can participate in a 1-question survey to help identify which questions about skills are most important to them

The frenzy over “skills” (reskilling, upskilling, unskilling, skilling 2.0, etc) has recently ratcheted up from a philosophical discussion to a verifiable necessity. While many leaders thought they had time to ease into a strategy, COVID-19 and some of the other unrest the world has experienced in 2020 have left leaders scrambling to help their employees develop new skills, establish new mobility patterns, make decisions on how to rearrange departments, functions, and make tough decisions about which skills (and employees) are mission critical, and which ones are not.

We’ve been watching the skills discussion for a few years. We've had regular conversations with academia, consulting firms, and leaders of big and small companies. We’ve also listened carefully to what was being said and written on the topic, and until now, we weren’t sure that the conversation was mature enough to warrant research – they didn’t seem to matter enough. For example, prominent discussions have included:

  • Which skills will be the most prominent in 2025, 2030, or 2050. While this has been somewhat interesting (e.g., will soft skills become more important, who will lose their jobs because their jobs can be automated, etc.), it seems a bit inane to assume that all workers and all organizations will need the same skills. We believe that determining necessary skills is a do-it-yourself-job. It's contextual, and it's specific, and organizations can’t cheat off of their neighbors.
  • What we call them. Are skills the same as competencies? Are competencies the same as traits? As we have looked into this, there is obviously some overlap and there are obviously some differences. We think, however, that this conversation detracts from the bigger question of, “How do we determine what people have, need now, and need in the future, and help them develop it?”
  • Skills as discrete and finite. Most of the stuff we’ve read talks about skills as finite: what skills – individual tasks – we need employees to do. Thinking this way limits an organization in that it takes care of this point in time only, which is a hopeless process, as by the time you have determined a structure for those skills, the world has moved on. We’re more interested in how organizations are developing the right culture and systems to ensure ongoing skills development.

In the coming months, we want to add to the skills conversation in a meaningful way. Specifically, we’d like to research a few areas that leaders and practitioners will find most useful in making plans and decisions. So we’d like your opinion.

As always, we’d love your thoughts. Feel free to shoot us a note, contact us directly, or leave comments in the Feedback section to the right.

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.


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